J. Cole Contemplates Life & Death on '4 Your Eyez Only'

J. Cole
Anthony Supreme

J. Cole

The rapper releases his most cryptic album yet.

“Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

John Donne’s quote about the interconnectedness of humanity -- in life and death -- is omnipresent on J. Cole’s new album 4 Your Eyez Only. "For Whom The Bell Tolls" opens the rapper’s most melancholy and introspective effort to date. Sonically minimalistic, he forgoes catchy hooks and big features for a stripped-down, lyrically-focused album that delves into entangled and complex emotions about life, death and legacy.

4 Your Eyez Only is a personal conversation, first and foremost, with Cole himself. "I see the rain powering down, before my very eyes,” he moans against a jazz-tinged background on the title track. The rapper is self-reflective, digging into his headspace. “I’m searching and praying and hoping for something I know I’m gonna see it… Lord.” Despite critical and commercial acclaim, he grapples with his mortality and what he’ll leave behind. “To die a young legend or live a long life unfulfilled?” he wails on “Immortal.” “Cause they only feel you after you gone, or I've been told/And now I'm caught between bein' heard and gettin' old/Damn, death creepin' in my thoughts lately.”

Although he’s just 31 years old, Cole’s gauging what his existence means. Compared to his contemporaries, he’s markedly reclusive and his tenuous relationship with fame is no secret on wax or in the media. On "January 28th" (which coincides with his birthday) from 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the rapper takes this stance on music industry diplomacy: "Don't give 'em too much you. Don't let 'em take control. It's one thing you do. Don't let 'em taint your soul." Compared to his peers, he’s ostensibly succeeded in flying below the radar; he lives in his native North Carolina, sends nary a tweet -- even to promote his own releases -- and his personal life is shrouded even though he reportedly got married and had his first child in the past year.

While most celebrities clamor to social media or glossy covers to share significant personal milestones, Cole only drops sonic hints of his maturation and vulnerability. The sweetly melodic "She’s Mine, Pt. 1" has the rapper gushing about a romantic love. "I never felt so alive," he hums, his voice cracking with feeling. This dovetails into the standout track “Foldin Clothes.” “I wanna fold clothes for you/I wanna make you feel good,” he says. Following his 2015 marriage to longtime girlfriend Melissa, Cole gives us a peek into his domestic life. He now enjoys doing mundane, domestic chores like folding laundry, watching Netflix and eating Raisin Bran. But like most 31-year-olds, he’s not fully converted to being a soccer dad. After all, just two years ago, he was haranguing (yet enjoying) promiscuous video vixens and groupies on "No Role Modelz." “I never thought I'd see the day I'm drinking almond milk,” he laughs now, while in the same breath admitting, "You soft!"

"She’s Mine, Pt. 2" is about another type of love, between the rapper and his first child. “Reminisce when you came out the womb/Tears of joy I think filled up the room/You are now the reason that I fight,” he says. The song has the sound of an infant crying interspersed throughout. In fact, many fans found out about the rapper’s newborn daughter through the track. On the closing (and title) track, “4 Your Eyez Only,” Cole shifts from joy to advice, telling his newborn daughter, "I pray you find a n---a with goals and point of views." Still, death is heavy on his mind. "I love you and I hope to God I don't lose you."

Aside from his own existence, there’s much speculation that the passing of Cole’s friend, James McMillan Jr., played an indelible part in 4 Your Eyez Only. Several moments are a tête–à–tête between the two; a commentary on McMillan’s street-wise life (and untimely death). "Kingpin n---a, put wings on a crack fiend … And I’m goin' out like Scarface in his last scene,” Cole describes on “Immortal.” Verses of “4 Your Eyez Only” can be parsed to be dialogue between Cole and McMillan’s daughter. "One day your daddy called me, told me he had a funny feeling,” he raps. "But I could feel the sense of panic in his voice and it was chilling." Just as Cole is concerned for his own daughter, he’s equally protective of McMillan’s. "Girl, your daddy was a real n---a… Not because he lived a life of crime and sat behind some bars/Not because he screamed, "F--k the law"/Although that was true/?Your daddy was a real n---a cause he loved you."

McMillan serves as a metaphor for death within the larger black community as well. “I dedicate these words to you and all the other children/Affected by the mass incarceration in this nation,” Cole raps on “4 Your Eyez Only.” “Ville Mentality,” an ode to his hometown Fayetteville, N.C., features an interlude of a young girl speaking about the effects of violence and growing up fatherless. "My dad, he died -- he got shot cause his friend set him up. And I didn't go to his funeral -- and sometimes when I'm in my room, I get mad at my momma when she mean to me." Growing up in a single parent home, Cole initially struggled with his small-town mentality. The HBO documentary, 2014 Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming, marked his physical and symbolic return to his roots.

Art can be interpreted any number of ways and there’s no dearth of decoding by fans and critics of Cole's 10-track set. Interestingly, even J. Cole’s closest collaborators and friends have their own theories. "The album is largely from a perspective that is not J. Cole," producer Elite sums up to Complex while photographer and director Anthony Supreme has another notion, telling Genius, "Cole speaking to the youth -- this is for your eyes only -- for the black youth, and how we all are kids at some point and we really don’t know nothing about the reality that we live in." Amid the cryptic verses and nuances, only one man knows for sure. Since the release, Cole has been quiet as usual. Interpretation truly is for your eyes -- and ears -- only.